DALLAS — This is the kind of game that Rangers dreams are made of.
Such steadiness in goal from Igor Shesterkin. A breakout game from Kaapo Kakko. And two points that kept them in the playoff picture.
So this three-game road trip started on a heartening note, a 4-2 victory over the Stars on Tuesday night that had a handful of things for the Blueshirts to take with them. Most importantly, it revived the good feeling that was close to leaving them with the recent slump (1-4-0 in their previous five) that not so coincidentally coincided with the injury to Chris Kreider.
“It was [such a] big game for us,” Kakko said, “and a couple goals, it’s so good.”
The Rangers (37-28-4) moved to three points behind the Blue Jackets for the East’s second wild card, while Kakko broke his own 14-game goal drought, having not scored since Feb. 9, which was his lone tally going back to Jan. 2. The 19-year-old, taken with the No. 2-overall pick in June, now has 10 goals on the season. And with Kreider possibly out for the rest of the regular season with his broken foot, the offensive slack needs to be picked up somewhere.
If it’s from Kakko, that doesn’t just bode well for this postseason push, but bodes well for the future of the organization. As coach David Quinn repeated again, “He’s a kid that has always gauged himself on points, as most 18-year-olds do.” So it’s only natural that the small numbers next to his name on the stat sheet were weighing on him.
“Of course I think [about] it sometimes, and it’s hard,” Kakko said. “But I try to play better. That’s it.”
It has been a steep learning curve for Kakko, adjusting to the smaller ice, faster pace, and more physical game than in his native Finland (or in the World Championships). He has been inconsistent at both ends — sometimes good offensively and bad defensively, and then suddenly a flip. But this was a huge step in the right direction, finishing a great feed from Brett Howden at 7:03 of the second to make it 3-0, then finishing a great feed from the irrepressible Mika Zibanejad just over 10 minutes in to make it 4-0.
“We want him to score, as we’ve told him repeatedly,” said Quinn, who made an adjustment to move Kakko up from the fourth line less than an hour before puck drop. “This isn’t about us trying to make him play defensive at the expense of playing offense. … I liked his game tonight. I thought he played a really good game.”
And even if the Stars (37-24-8) hardly showed up in the opening 40 minutes, and are now 0-4-2 in their last six, they pushed in the third. A power-play goal from Roope Hintz at 1:23 was followed by a put-back from Andrew Cogliano at 11:52 to make it 4-2 and create an interesting final eight minutes. But that is when Shesterkin held his ground, bouncing back from his worst NHL performance — when he was pulled on Saturday against the Devils — by making 31 saves and picking up his 10th win in his first 12 games in the league.
“He played really well. He made the saves he needed to make,” Quinn said. “I liked our goaltending, I liked our defensemen, and I liked our forwards.”
It was a complete performance, starting with Adam Fox’s eighth goal of the season just 19 seconds in, beating Ben Bishop with a wrister from the slot. It was followed by Zibanejad’s 40th of the season at 10:12 of the first, taking a 2-0 lead into the second period even if Filip Chytil didn’t join them there — the 20-year-old center not coming out for the second period after suffering a lower-body injury.
But the Rangers didn’t falter. They got good performances up and down the lineup, and in nets. It started this trip on the right foot, and if it gets Kakko going, that might prove to be a huge boost to keep the good feeling and playoff push alive.
“We played well, I played well,” Kakko said. “Good win.”